We can heal racial divisions one smile at a time. One little girl did it for me

Bob Penton is a 2019 reader columnist for The News Tribune.
Bob Penton is a 2019 reader columnist for The News Tribune. Tacoma

I turned 71 this year and thought I’d experienced nearly all that this life has to offer, but the other day I had a life-changing moment.

Strolling down the aisle of my favorite grocery store, I passed a white family of four. A father, mother, brother and sister all took turns putting things in their cart.

As the adults were engaged in conversation, I briefly noticed their appearance, which was somewhat unkempt.

As the family slowly moved past me, I briefly glanced up at them. And then I did something I’ve been preaching against my whole life: I immediately made a character judgment based on that family’s appearance and skin color.

My perception of them was further altered by seared memories of overt racism from the hands of white southerners that looked just like them. Without warning, decades of hurtful memories resurrected in my mind.

The young girl in the group must have noticed me looking their way, because she looked back at me and our eyes connected.

And that’s when she gave me the most loving smile Iʼve ever experienced.

Have you ever seen a grown man tear up in a cereal aisle?

Immediately my heart was inundated with unprecedented joy followed by a sudden cascade of tears that flooded my eyes and shook my being. I was overcome by every exuberant emotion.

I didnʼt know what to do; I wanted to dance, run and shout all at once. I couldnʼt wait to get to my car.

Once there, I released an unintelligible shout followed by a praise: “Hal – le – lu – jah! Hallelujah, Hallelujah!”

What had just happened? How could a simple smile make such a dramatic impact?

Iʼve smiled at people and received smiles from hundreds, if not thousands, of people before. Why did this smile from this little girl make such a profound impact on me? Furthermore, why on this particular day?

I still don’t know the answer to all those questions; all I know is that her smile set me free.

Like a lot of Americans, I had been incarcerated by nefarious forces caused by a divisive political climate and, yes, I have been thirsty for civility. Furthermore, I was battling personal financial demons which have plagued my life for what seems like forever.

And that smile reminded me what true generosity looks like.

A connection in the cereal aisle won’t change your circumstances, not even a millionth of an inch. But I continue to reflect on that very subtle interaction and the transformation that has taken place within me.

I unequivocally believe that this brief interruption in time was an angelic encounter. The brilliance and beauty of one smile had the power to cause all the painful racial experiences of my past to detach from me.

They just fell away. How else do you explain such a rapid healing?

The smile said this: “I see you and you see me. Not the you and me defined by skin color, but a you and me defined by something much bigger.”

It’s what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. meant when he said, ”I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

I challenge everyone to smile more.

Bob Penton of South Hill has served as both pastor and community organizer in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood for 52 years. He is one of six reader columnists who write for this page. Reach him at Robert.Penton68@gmail.com